Why New York’s Tenement Museum Workers Decided to Unionize

The Tenement Museum tells stories of life and labor on New York's Lower East Side. But it's not just garment workers from a century ago who needed unions — the museum workers themselves recently decided they did, too.

The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, New York City. Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Meagan Day

Last month, Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht, Jacobin contributor Miles Kampf-Lassin, and I were walking in New York City’s Lower East Side when we decided to pop into the gift shop of the Tenement Museum. We were leafing through books about life in New York’s immigrant worker housing at the turn of the twentieth century when Micah noticed that some of the employees were zipping around the shop, whispering animatedly to one another.

We thought nothing of it until we exited the building, at which point Miles spotted a group on the sidewalk sporting union buttons and big smiles. By some kind of serendipity, workers at the Tenement Museum just moments before had voted to join United Auto Worker (UAW) Local 2110.

Last week, I spoke to Nicole Daniels and Laureen Fredella, who work as museum educators, and Jackie Wait, who works in advanced sales, about what it was like to organize their workplace.


What were the working conditions that initially led you to discuss joining a union?


We’re not really dealing with exploitive workplace conditions, but we do have high turnover, and we’re concerned about that — not just for ourselves, but for the museum as well. We really do care about this organization.

We’re concerned about the positions being sustainable. Some of us are part-time by choice — I am, for example — but a lot of people aren’t. And, of course, trying to make ends meet in New York City is a real challenge. We have people that are working three or four jobs sometimes, and that’s really difficult.


We also have new management, and with that management turnover, we were concerned about the future. We talk to and have relationships with our direct managers, who are middle-level managers. And then there’s senior management, who we don’t have much communication with, and that’s where the most change has happened recently.

We have a new president, a new CFO, new people in development. So there’s all of this change happening way above us. And the question becomes: how do we guarantee that those changes don’t affect our day to day?

There’s also new construction happening at one of our tenement buildings, and we wonder how that will affect our job security. We know they’re saying they want to prioritize that, but we want to see what it looks like on paper.


What were the first steps you took to unionizing?


There were previous efforts to unionize, one in 2010 and another one about five years ago. But there is high turnover, so a lot of us were not involved in those previous efforts. For us, we started talking about this in November of last year.

First, we started to hold meetings off-site specifically for educators with the museum. We called them educators-only retreats, and we had snacks and warm conversation. In November, about thirty educators met together. We had an agenda that focused on three different questions. First we asked, “What do you like about your work?” Then we asked, “What things are difficult?” and “What are the restrictions we face to making things work right?”

Then we met about a month later, with forty to fifty educators, and talked about our options. One option was to stay with the status quo. Another option was to pursue the methods we’d already been using, like talking to management about our issues and giving suggestions. And the other two options were to either create a union or to join an existing union. We really tried to do consensus building as much as possible. In the end, most people wanted to either create a union or join an existing union.

But we didn’t know how to do that. So we brought in a panel of five experts in the field from different unions to explain what the process would look like. We talked again about what would make sense for us, and then we held another vote and decided to affiliate with a union.

That’s when we brought on UAW. When we did that, they explained that it was possible to have a more inclusive bargaining unit, so we began reaching out to workers in other departments as well, including visitor services, retail, and advanced sales.

Throughout, what has allowed it to work is that we were keeping everybody up to date. We had complex spreadsheets that explained who had been updated, who needed to be reached out to if they missed a meeting, who hadn’t been talked to yet. Everyone received the notes, and people were updated either one on one or in small groups. We made sure nobody was ever excluded, and that was one of our biggest strengths.


As Nicole said, there were previous attempts to join or create a union, and while we weren’t exactly picking up where they left off, we did learn from those previous efforts. Both of them ended up being very divisive and stressful.

One of the things that made our attempt successful was that we really had a set of values on this committee: that we were going to prioritize our relationships both with our coworkers in the bargaining unit and with our direct managers. We didn’t want it to become this awful stressful thing that made people afraid to come to work.

Some people who had been around for the previous attempts were hesitant at first. They didn’t want to go through that again. But when they saw that we were going about it differently, and how much camaraderie we were creating, that really won them over. It’s been really unbelievable, the amount of camaraderie. It’s something we’ve never had before.


Jackie, you’re in a different department. Who brought the idea of unionizing to you, and how was it presented?


Nicole brought it to me. It was my understanding that she spent many, many hours in the same coffeehouse meeting with people. She was very prepared. She and other educators gave us a ton of concrete information on what a union is and how it would work.

And from there we were given a choice, like, “This is an option for you. If you want to be part of it, let us know.” And I wanted to be part of it. I also saw it as an opportunity to become more unified and start working together across departments.


What kinds of things are you hoping to secure in your first contract?


A big part of it is we want to protect the things that are working and secure the things that are already keeping so many of us here. For example, for educators we have something called block scheduling, in which we don’t have to clock out for long breaks. We like that, and we don’t want it to change if there’s new management.

So a lot of it is about preserving the things that work already, but also standardizing systems. MoMA has a system of raises. We’re starting to ask if that’s something people in our bargaining unit will support. And we’re exploring things like having systems for grievances, systems for benefits.

There’s a huge range of people across the departments, some of whom are part-time and others full-time, some of whom have benefits through the museum and others who don’t. Some of the ones who don’t have benefits through the museum get them from their parents or their partners. We want to serve the whole group, so we’re just going to have to see what’s needed.


What’s the response from the museum been like so far?


The museum has agreed to act in neutrality, which we really appreciate. They had initially done a series of informational meetings in which all employees were included. They framed them as a way to give everybody information about how a union would affect all employees.

I think they found that the bargaining unit was already really well-informed, so the knowledge we had worked to build in the group really helped us get through those. And the museum stopped those meetings once we reached an agreement about the bargaining unit and date of election.


A lot of people who work in offices or have professional jobs don’t think a union is for them. They have an image of a construction or factory worker in their head, and they don’t identify with it.

This may be especially true for workers in cultural institutions, where the prevailing idea is that your work is going toward a greater public good and there’s an air of volunteerism about it. Did you come up against that in any of your organizing conversations?


I came up against that in my own experience. I was thinking, “I’m not exploited, why do I need a union?” I eventually came to a different understanding about that.

I will say that we are coming up against this a little bit in the response to our unionization. People sort of assume that because we formed a union we must feel exploited. We don’t want people to think that.


Right, at the Tenement Museum we tell the stories of workers who were engaged in many cases in labor struggles. And some people have been worried that this is becoming the narrative, like, “Oh the Tenement Museum forms a union, how ironic.” While we find the family stories we tell to be very powerful and empowering, we don’t want that to be the only lens that our unionization effort is seen through.


What strategies did you employ to get people to think differently about how a union could benefit them?


With some people, the conversation had to be getting them to think, “Well this might not benefit me that much. I’m fine. But maybe it would benefit someone else in our unit, or someone who might come after me.” That was a way to shift the focus off of the immediate personal reaction of people thinking, “I don’t need this.”

I also just think that organizing in cultural institutions has to look radically different than organizing in other environments, especially when you do like your work. It can feel conflicting. But you can frame it instead as, “Well how do we make sure that these are jobs people will enjoy and want to do for a long time to come?”


Somebody who was involved in the last union effort said, “You know, I just prefer that my workplace is regulated.” That was something I floated to people a lot, and it gives a different perspective.


Workers at MoMA have been affiliated with UAW Local 2110 for a long time, and workers at the New Museum recently voted to join the union. Did you have any contact with other union members who work at cultural institutions about what it would look like?


Yes, somebody who’s been working with us is a MoMA employee who has a year of sabbatical to do union work. She was one of the people who really helped us think through what this actually looks like on the ground, what it means to be a union member. And we had some get-togethers with the New Museum staff. And now we’re having get-togethers with workers at other museums.


There’s been a new energy around labor unions in this country, especially with the teachers’ strike wave and the massive popular support for it. Do you see your unionization effort as being connected to that broader story?


When I’ve spoken to friends from France or England and I tell them we started a union, they don’t get what the big deal is. But it is a big deal in the United States, where it’s much less common.

I’d like to think that maybe we’re catching up to how other places are thinking about how workplaces ought to be organized. Maybe some of the stigma and fear around unions has melted away.


For me, it wasn’t on my radar, the idea of joining a union. But having had this experience, even just having happy hours with other people who are part of UAW, I can see it. It’s so close to me now, and I’m connected with other people in it. I can identify now with what you’re saying about a sort of “wave,” if you will.

End Mark

About the Author

Nicole Daniels is a museum educator at the Tenement Museum on New York City's Lower East Side.

Laureen Fredella is a museum educator at the Tenement Museum on New York City's Lower East Side.

Jackie Wait works in advanced sales at the Tenement Museum on New York City's Lower East Side.

About the Interviewer

Meagan Day is a staff writer at Jacobin.

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